Caretaking: Is Taking Action Helpful or Harmful?

Maureen MurdockAddiction, Mental Illness11 Comments

I have been to many NAMI and Al-Anon meetings over the years that were attended primarily by mothers and grandmothers dealing with their son’s or daughter’s mental illness and/or addiction. I’ve always wondered why there were so few fathers in attendance. Were they afraid to acknowledge their child had a problem? In general, it seems that mothers take on the role of primary caretaker trying to keep their child functioning. As caretakers, we come to believe we have no choice; if we don’t step in, something terrible will happen. I know, I’ve been terrified my child would die.

I was appalled one time when my therapist said, “You’re looking for a quick fix,” in regards to finding the right treatment for my son. Although part of me was angry he was comparing me to an addict, he was right. I was obsessed with finding SOMETHING to DO to alleviate my own stress about my son’s illness.

Today, I read something by Debra Jay in No More Letting Go that helped me understand what drives the caretaker even when nothing the caretaker does seems to make a difference.

Caretakers can’t stop taking care of everything and every time we avert another disaster, it reinforces our belief that we are doing the right thing.

When the crisis is over we feel an overwhelming sense of relief. Solving the problem makes us feel good.  The two most powerful motivating forces in life—avoiding pain and seeking pleasure—now control our actions. When it comes to a situation in which a child is addicted, the role of caretaker is usually taken on by the mother. Shelley E. Taylor, a psychology professor at UCLA calls it the tending instinct, which is biologically more prominent in women.

This is how it works: The chemical oxytocin is released in the reward centers of the human brain, facilitating intense emotional attachments such as those between parent and child. Oxytocin reinforces the pleasure we feel when we create social bonds. It is released during childbirth or when a mother is breastfeeding her baby. Estrogen in a woman increases its potency whereas the male hormone testosterone does not. Apparently, oxytocin is also released during times of stress so this may be why caretakers become increasingly obsessed with taking care of the addicted child as problems worsen. And there is a direct correlation between the severity of the addiction and the excessiveness of caretaking. It is common for a parent to respond to a fully grown son or daughter as if he or she were still a small child. And of course, this causes more problems in the family.

Biology isn’t the only culprit. Caretakers are motivated by complex emotions, usually a combination of love, fear, guilt, and shame. And I’d add hubris: most caretakers believe they are the only ones who can help their child.

Caretakers are incredibly well-intentioned and cannot see that their efforts aren’t helping. Instead, their rescue attempts often make it easier for the disease to persist. When their best efforts are continually thwarted they end up confused, angry, and sad that they’re not doing it “right”. At that point, the caretaker needs to learn to take care of herself.

Please take a look at my friend Kathleen Pooler’s blog about a recent talk I gave at SPARK Theater in Pacific Palisades. Here’s the link to Part 1 and Part 2.


11 Comments on “Caretaking: Is Taking Action Helpful or Harmful?”

  1. I appreciate all the comments on this blog. I can see that this post, Maureen, is an excellent crystallization of the many issues you’ve been discussing and facing all along. I especially liked your including the chemical fix that we caretakers get, and the irony that we’re trying to fix those who have their own addictions to chemicals (in my case, my alcoholic mother and others since then). Our oxytocin fix, along with the learned roles relating to helping and rescuing others, show how deeply embedded are these responses. What krpooler says above, however, is the essence of the motivation for us to stop fixing others: They can’t even try to fix themselves if we do it for them. Yes, we are so afraid that our loved one will harm him or herself drastically, may even die, if we don’t step in. But what makes us think we are their higher power to determine whether they live or die? Well, it’s all deep? Thanks for helping us work towards answers that promote a skillful approach to supporting our lives, those of us who are caretakers, those who are overcoming addiction of other kinds.

  2. Dear Maureen, To my mind, this is an especially important post in your blog, touching as it does on a host of crucial issues in the relationship between caregiver and care receiver. The biological imperatives that drive usare fundamental, of course, including those of oxytocin and our relational instincts (especially the parental ones, even if our care receiver is not our literal child). In addition to our biological legacies, we must reckon with the learned roles of “problem-solver,” “wound-healer,” “flock tender,” and perhaps most pernicious of all, “hero/heroine.” And on top of the challenges that face us when we are caregivers, there are the myriad roles, learned and innate, that activate inside us when we find ourselves in need of care — when we become the addicted, the infirm, or the otherwise afflicted. It’s a wonder that we ever manage to extricate ourselves from the many dysfunctional possibilities in the care relationship, both as givers and receivers. Thank you, Maureen, for continuing to map this daunting jungle for us, even as you acknowledge that you yourself are struggling to keep your bearings. Yours is a courageous and noble endeavor!

    1. Thanks, Barbara, for writing about all the roles we take on as caregivers: “problem-solver,” “wounded-healer,” “flock tender,” and especially “hero/heroine.” For those of us who played the “hero/heroine” in our family of origin, particularly if there was addiction in the family, it is oh so seductive to continue to play the “hero/heroine” in future relationships. You’re right; it is a wonder that we ever manage to extricate ourselves from the many dysfunctional possibilities in the care relationship.

  3. Doing something for someone that takes away their personal responsibility has only ended up badly for me. The hardest thing in the world is to stand by and support someone to choose their life and health or not.

    1. You’re right, Jennifer that the hardest thing is to stand by and watch someone you love make decisions that might not be in the best interest of their health and well being. I know for myself that my fear gets in the way of accepting that I am truly powerless to effect my loved one’s choices.

  4. Any doubts about the mind-body-soul connection are repudiated here. It is so difficult to step back and hand responsibility to an addict! Now we know why.
    Genie Hoyne

    1. Thanks for writing, Genie. Yes, the connection between brain hormones and behavior really helped me understand more clearly the role oxytocin plays in our instinctual nature to protect our children from themselves. And additionally, why it’s so hard to step back with an addicted child and watch him or her suffer their own consequences. Maureen

  5. Wow— good info and right on target I would say–I could relate to your comments on being a caretaker–although I luckily have not had to deal with kid difficulties/problems , I absolutely know that I would jump in and about kill myself to make a situation better for them ,all the time feeling a deep satisfying sigh that I had done “something” to help my child.Hope all is well with you two.


    1. Cindy, thank you for bringing up a very important point that being a caretaker does not relate solely to parents taking care of children. Caretakers exist in all family (and human) relationships: taking care of aging parents, grandparents, siblings, partners; taking care of sick relatives and friends, pets, even for organizations. It’s the caretaking archetype I’m writing about and the difference between being a caregiver (who does good things for people) and being a caretaker (who also does good things but tries to take care of everything) is the obsession with being the one to solve every problem. Maureen

  6. This is a good explanation of why mothers, and friends who want to support them, feel compelled to “do something” for a child who is addicted and/or suffers from mental illness. It seems that biology (oxytocin), ego (surely I can fix this) and cultural/religious norms (give help to those in need) combine to keep caretakers going, despite the lack of “success”. It is difficult, but necessary, to heed the advice at the end of this piece.

  7. Dear Maureen, This is such an important post for caretakers.It took years of Al-Anon for me to finally “get” the concept that the best way to help my chemically-dependent son was to not do for him what he should/could do for himself because that would rob him of the opportunity to take responsibility for his own life. When I first started being aware, I remember a visual ( from Al-Anon) that helped me: enabling my son was like handing a suicidal person a gun. Self-care, live and let live and love the person not the disease– not always easy and certainly not a quick fix but have been lifesaving for both my son and me. Thank you for the work you are doing to address these issues. And thank you also for the link to my blog where your guest post has generated a lively and heartfelt conversation.

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